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Orthodox Stronghold Eyed in N.J. Bias Probes

LAKEWOOD TOWNSHIP, N.J. – Officials in this multi-ethnic town of 66,000 have been under investigation on several fronts for allegedly discriminating against racial minorities and favoring the growing ultra-Orthodox population.

The New Jersey attorney general’s office is currently investigating the Lakewood police department’s handling of a case in which a group of Orthodox men assaulted a black teenager, according to local officials. The local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has said that the Orthodox assailants should be charged with bias, due to racial slurs allegedly yelled during the incident. So far, only one Orthodox man has been arrested and charged with simple assault.

News of the attorney general’s probe comes a month after the New Jersey Department of Education announced the results of a separate investigation, which found that the Lakewood School District had discriminated in favor of ultra-Orthodox children — and against local black and Latino children — in the administration of special education programs.

In a third matter, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development completed an investigation last week, which found that a local Jewish apartment owner had given preferential treatment to Orthodox tenants at a housing complex that receives locally-administered housing grants.

One local official, who asked to remain anonymous, said that in addition to the separate individual investigations, the FBI and the state attorney general had been looking more broadly at the situation in Lakewood — a town that has become a living symbol of the growing size and clout of the ultra-Orthodox community in America. Other prominent local figures confirmed that wider investigations of municipal authorities are taking place.

“I am aware that there are several law enforcement inquiries going on into several different matters,” said Warren Sherard, executive director of the local branch of the NAACP.

Danny Goldberg, executive director of the local Jewish federation, which is not affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox community, said he was aware “that the attorney general’s office of New Jersey is concerned about the overall situation in Lakewood, both from the point of view of certain civil rights issues and from the point of view of their concern about potential ethnic tensions.”

The state attorney general and FBI both said that they could not comment on pending investigations.

The ultra-Orthodox community in Lakewood has long been accused of receiving preferential treatment in a number of municipal matters. In the past, local Orthodox leaders have said that any imbalances in the services received by Orthodox residents were only a product of their ability to benefit from the guidance and organization of an extensive private religious infrastructure. But the two recent government reports rejected that line of argument and allege, instead, that systematic discrimination has taken place.

“The allegations in this case smack of the racial covenants and the ugly segregation of the past,” said Kim Kendrick, assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity at HUD, in a statement about the housing case.

Ethnic tensions in this central New Jersey town have been steadily bubbling during the last decade as its population has grown almost 50% and the town’s resources have been stretched. Most of the growth has come in the ultra-Orthodox community.

Lakewood is home to one of the world’s largest yeshivas, Beth Medrash Govoha, and has become a popular destination for ultra-Orthodox Jews looking to escape city life. The other growing group has been the Hispanic community. In 2000, according to the United States Census, the town was 12% black and 18% Hispanic.

The ultra-Orthodox community has long exercised a strong political hand through the Lakewood Vaad, a council of local rabbis and community leaders that offers endorsements each election. The endorsement of the Vaad carries great weight with many Orthodox voters in the town, and for the last decade the Vaad’s candidates have won almost every election.

For many years, members of the Orthodox community have held positions on the local housing authority, planning boards and school boards. Last year, for the first time ever, an ultra-Orthodox member of the five-person township committee, Meir Lichtenstein, was chosen as mayor. It was hoped that Lichtenstein might help heal some of the growing tension between the town’s largely segregated ethnic communities. But the last few months, instead, have been among the most divisive for Lakewood.

The most controversial incident was the assault on the black teenager, Jamarr Dickerson. On May 17, the police found Dickerson, 15, being held on the ground under the knee of Elchonon Zimmerman, a 43-year-old Orthodox man. Dickerson has said he was accosted by a group of Orthodox men when he was taking a short cut through a local alley. During the incident, Dickerson says, the men yelled racial slurs at him and told him he did not belong in that part of town.

The NAACP alleges that when Zimmerman was arrested, he was not handcuffed or put in a holding cell, as is typically done. More significantly, the NAACP says, the other men at the scene were not arrested. Police officials told the Asbury Park Press that there could be no bias charge because it had been the other men who are alleged to have yelled the racial slurs, and those men could not be located.

The Lakewood police department did not return calls seeking comment.

The incident sparked one confrontational town council meeting and caused another meeting to be cancelled.

Lichtenstein, the mayor, told the Forward that he would not comment on what he had been asked about by the New Jersey attorney general in connection with the Dickerson case. Lichtenstein did say, “we are going to continue doing what we’ve always done, which is to rule fairly, equally and treat everyone the same.”

The town could face more problems, in the long run, from the recent findings of the New Jersey department of education. The department began investigating after the local American Civil Liberties Union issued a report indicating that Orthodox children were given a disproportionate number of referrals to expensive, out-of-district special education schools. The Lakewood School District filed a response from a former state commissioner of education arguing that the higher number of referrals was a result of the higher number of requests from the Orthodox community.

After an investigation, the state department of education called the town’s response “disingenuous.” The state found that white students were six times as likely to be given a full-day special education program than a non-white student, and that among children with the same disabilities, white students were systematically given more extensive help by the district.

“Program and placement decisions can be directly correlated with a student’s race,” the report concluded.

The state department directed the Lakewood district to develop a “corrective action plan” by July 31. The Lakewood district’s superintendent referred phone calls to a lawyer for the district who said, “The board is carefully considering the report.”

The most recent bombshell was the HUD complaint filed last week against Triple H. Realty, the owners of Cottage Manor, a low-income housing development composed of six red-brick buildings. According to the complaint, beginning in 2002, the manager of Triple H. Realty asked Hispanic and black residents to move out of the two buildings facing the street so that Jewish families could move in and “would not have to live among African American and Hispanic families.”

When the Jewish families moved in, the HUD investigation found, they were given rents nearly $300 lower than those paid by black and Latino families for the same size apartment. Moreover, while those front apartment blocks were maintained with a neat lawn and a white picket fence, the back buildings were allowed to decay, according to the complaint.

One of the women who initially filed a complaint with HUD, Olivia Wilson, told the Forward that her apartment was infested with rats and roaches, but the management had refused to send an exterminator.

“I had to sleep with my lights on because I was so terrified,” said Wilson, who has since moved to a better-kept complex.

Meanwhile, the HUD investigator talked with the Jewish residents and found that “none complained of problems with maintenance or extermination services.”

On a visit to the complex this week, signs of the division were still apparent in the fading white picket fences that protected the front buildings, while the back buildings had nothing but exposed cement. Current residents said the Jewish families have since moved out, but the conditions have not improved.

“It’s just a mess,” said Gloria Sease, an African-American who has lived in the complex for 20 years. “We people ain’t got nothing around here.”

The complaint says that Triple H. had been run by Harry Kantor, but a maintenance worker at the complex said Kantor was gone, and referred the Forward to another manager. No one was in the realty office, and calls to the manager went unreturned.

Many of the residents of Cottage Manor, including Sease, are recipients of Section 8 vouchers, an affordable housing program that is administered through local housing authorities.

The Lakewood Housing Authority has come under scrutiny in the past. In 2000, the authority’s executive director, Meir Hertz, pleaded guilty to tax evasion in connection with his administration of a Newark housing complex. In addition to fines and probation, Hertz had to give up his executive director post. He was, however, allowed to stay on as the executive director of both the Lakewood Tenants Organization and the Lakewood Township Residential Assistance Program, which administer the authority’s public housing grant. Hertz remains at the head of those organizations today.

On both the housing issues and the schooling issues, the local NAACP has repeatedly charged that the town’s blacks and Hispanics have been discriminated against by municipal authorities. Sherard, the NAACP head, said he has been called antisemitic for making past charges of discrimination.

“It’s deeply saddening to be right about these things,” Sherard said. “This is a very sad time in Lakewood. It really is.”

On the Orthodox side, there have also been signs of discontent with the municipal leadership. In early May, an Orthodox woman was abducted and raped, and the assailant was never found by the police. In June, several young Orthodox men announced that they were forming a group, known as Shomrim, which would patrol the streets to protect Orthodox residents.

While the announcement was met with some skepticism from the Lakewood Public Safety Officer, the group has already signed up about 30 members, who are connected by walkie-talkies and a call-in phone line. The effort, though, was dealt a setback, when one of Shomrim’s two co-founders, Chaim Rubin, was charged last week with two counts of bribing a police officer. According to the affidavit from the Ocean County prosecutor’s office, Rubin repeatedly met privately with a Lakewood police officer and offered hundreds of dollars to erase his wife’s traffic charges.

“One hand washes the other,” Rubin is said to have told the police officer, according to the affidavit.

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